Chosen One: Ryan Francesconi
Interview with Ryan Francesconi.
“One of the most awe-inspiring musicians I’ve known….it’s nearly impossible to believe he’s picking these strings with just one hand. This is solo music that sounds like an ensemble; an ecstatic and measured reconciliation of West-African/Balkan/Baroque/bluegrass influences, which ultimately resembles nothing I know.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Portland-based composer and multi-instrumentalist, Ryan Francesconi is one of those rare artists who can create magic and inspiration by the very touch of his hand. His masterful guitar playing is a feast for the senses. His music; whether solo guitar, his array of collaborative work or song arrangements for songwriters such as Joanna Newsom, possesses a depth of heart. The sound of a miracle unfolding. Francesconi’s transcendent music immerses you into a whole new world of possibilities.
My introduction to Ryan Francesconi was through Joanna Newsom’s third studio album ‘Have One On Me’, a triple-album of true art and beauty. Having already released two masterpieces in the form of ‘Milk Eyed Mender’ and ‘Ys’, the follow-up was a fitting addition to her mythical songbook. Francesconi played an integral role to the creation of ‘Have One On Me’, as musical director; providing the path for Newsom’s songcraft. His arrangements on these complex and innovative folk explorations is what makes Newsom’s album such a compelling and fulfilling journey. Francesconi classifies her music as “true music” and the same can be said for the work of Ryan Francesconi.
Ryan Francesconi’s debut solo album, ‘Parables’ was released to huge critical acclaim in 2010. It is amazing to think there are no overdubs on the record. ‘Parables’ is Francesconi’s solo guitar, where each track is recorded live in one take. Similar to Colin Stetson’s saxophone works, sparks of amazement diffuses into the human space. He embarked upon his first solo tour of Europe early in 2011, spellbinding audiences across the continent.
Last year, Bella Union released ‘Road To Palios’, the wonderful collaboration between Ryan Francesconi and his partner Mirabai Peart. The album contains a mesmerising cycle of duets for acoustic guitar (Francesconi) and violin (Peart). The album was inspired by the couple’s trip to the Greek island of Lesvos. In the words of Francesconi: “Experiencing the deep raw part of Greece is to transcend time.” Similarly, the music is utterly transcendent. The breathtaking instrumentals evoke the deep blue seas, rugged hills, mountains, human history and rich culture of Greece. A heart and soul is pouring from the two musicians. The close dialogue between the acoustic guitar of Francesconi and Peart’s violin is what makes this journey such a compelling one.
Opener ‘Parallel Flights’ begins with a slow waltz of acoustic guitar notes. I feel the notes reflected in the shimmering deep blue seas. One minute in, Peart’s violin creates an odyssey of beguiling sound. The violin notes flow along the current of acoustic guitar melodies, eventually meeting the blue sea. A single stream of consciousness. The violin and guitar become one. The dynamic range shifts on ‘For Christos’. Soaring violin and John Fahey-esque guitar continues the journey along the road to Palios. I particularly love the quiet that ascends upon the listener halfway through; a tenderness and sadness radiates through the sonic terrain.
The title-track is steeped in immense beauty. Boundaries as ever are crossed, as the piece goes from Balkan to Baroque, and Americana in one fleeting thought. The passages of Francesconi’s solo guitar is sublime. Peart’s violin adds wonderful textures and depth. ‘Far From Shore’ is just that – a gorgeous, meditative instrumental. Their shared obsession of Balkan folk music is clearly conveyed. In the words of Francesconi: “This colour seems to seep into everything I do. It’s not entirely conscious at this point. It’s my hands. It’s not me.” The stark natural beauty is etched across the land and music, alike. ‘Road To Palios’ is a journey of the heart and soul.
Ryan Francesconi Interview.
Your father is a mime. Your mother is a writer. Art for you was always in your blood. Can you please discuss this artistic world you were immersed in as you were growing up in your family home?
Well honestly it wasn’t so much an artistic environment actually. What it was though was an unstructured one, a place where I could explore whatever I wanted with total freedom. That worked really well for me.
You gravitated towards music at an early age. I was interested to hear you built your first guitar at the tender age of 7, albeit from rubber bands! Your first electric guitar you bought at 11. Please take me back to this time when you first started playing the guitar and what were the possibilities you saw with this musical instrument?
Well as you might imagine, the rubber band guitar had certain limitations. At the time though I did combine it with some bongos and a harmonica, so between the 3 of them I could get a decent jam going. I found music totally on my own, nothing was introduced to me. So, it took some time to realize that was what I really wanted to do. Up until college I still debated going into visual arts rather than music. Since I made that choice it’s been full time music.
I absolutely love your latest album ‘Road To Palios’ with your partner Mirabai Peart. The duets for acoustic guitar and violin are breathtaking and feels like a soul journey that transcends both space and time. Can you please discuss the inspiration of the trip to the Greek Island of Lesvos had on you and how it triggered this music to be made?
Hey thanks! It’s wonderful to play and travel together so it was very natural to make a record as well. I was interested to go to Lesvos as a certain tune that I love was from there. It became sort of an underlying plot while we were staying there to see if we could find out anything about it, or perhaps pinpoint the village it was from – riding double on a scooter or junker bikes along the dirt roads. Experiencing the deep raw part of Greece is to transcend time. You can see time layed out before you, in the old stone walls, the shepherd paths, the ruins. This is human history at a crossroads. Still visible. At night it can be downright spooky. There is still magic in those hills.
In terms of the compositions on ‘Road To Palios’, what are the sources for these instrumentals. ‘Kalamatianos’ is a traditional Greek dance. A beautiful piece of music. Can you tell me more about this piece and what other traditional pieces are on this special album?
To clarify – there is no traditional music on this record. These are only compositions of mine. Honestly, I didn’t intend Kalamatianos to remain the title of that tune, but I took too long to rename it, then it was too late. Often I’ll just lazily name a piece by the type of dance that is associated with it – if it happens to match to one.
Your main obsession is towards Balkan folk music, mainly from Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey. I would love to know what is the essence of this world of music that makes such a connection for you as an artist?
Well, it’s damn good music! True music. Music that isn’t so based around the ego like most pop music. It has the technical skill that the brain enjoys, but a depth of heart that isn’t matched by much else out there.
Many styles are inherent in your playing. American bluegrass, folk, jazz improvisation, Baroque to name but a few. Can you please give me some records that were defining for you in exploring these genres of music?
Erkan Oğur & İsmail H. Demircioğlu – Anadolu Beşik
Nikos Filippidis – Ek Konitsis
Pasatempo Rembetica and Christos Govetas – To Monopati
Grupa Maistori – Maistori
Robert Barto – Sonatas For Lute (any of the 10 CDs)
Bryan Sutton – Too Far From The Tree
Eric Dolphy – Out To Lunch
You are an integral part to Joanna Newsom’s music; from the arrangements and instrumentation on her amazing triple album ‘Have One On Me’ and as part of her live band in the Ys Street band. Please give me an insight into this beautiful working relationship you have with Joanna?
I think Joanna can be also classified as true music. I don’t listen to any pop music at all, so I’m not terribly educated about what is out there that also might be. Robin Pecknold is certainly in the same ‘true’ category. It was a lucky combination with Joanna. I don’t think really many singers would be interested in the types of things I do best – so I was able to help her with the more scholarly bits. Great compliment for me as well as I’m a terrible singer. No talent.
Is there a particular song on ‘Have One On Me’ you are most proud of, looking back on the album now?
I like the brass arrangement on ‘You and Me Bess’, also I think the title track is quite an amazing song. We didn’t quite nail the performances of the arrangements on the record, but you can get the idea anyway!
Please discuss your amazing solo guitar record, ‘Parables’? This was my first introduction to your music. It’s hard to believe it is solo as it feels an entire ensemble are playing on there!
Nice of you to say. Not sure I’d agree though! Well, it is just a humble record. I just wanted to strip bare my music. What can I do if I have to do it live and acoustic. What’s possible? That was the starting point.
The tracks were all recorded live with no overdubs. This really epitomizes your amazing talent as a musician. What guitarists influence you the most for performing music?
I was a guitar head in college, but after that, I didn’t play much guitar for a long time as I was playing more of the folk instruments. I guess if you combined Miroslav Tadic with Bill Frisell you’d be in the ballpark.
I hear you have a passion for cycling. Please talk about this passion and the importance the sport has on you? I’ve started cycling last year and can’t believe the benefits you are awarded from it; mainly a large intake of healthy air and oxygen!
It’s a slippery slope. Once the bug gets you, its near impossible to get out again. It’s been great, but I tend to spend more time doing it than everything else – including music. I race with Team Oregon – on the road during the spring and summer, then cyclocross in the fall and winter. Keeping up with training is important for me, but rather impossible while touring. I’m in Australia now, but I brought my cross bike with me. I can’t decide if it’s a healthy obsession or not! Certainly is an intense one. It’s a direct physical experience of life. It’s dangerous, removes the insulation that our antiseptic society has created. Bike racing is primal and raw. It’s about pushing past your comfort zone into uncharted suffering.
Portland is a great place for bikes. Most of my best friends there are cyclists not musicians!
What are your current inspirations?
I’m so grateful to Bella Union to of put out ‘Road To Palios’. It’s a bit of a tangent for them, so very kind of them to try it. I have a different idea for the next record. Something with more instruments…
What’s next for you, Ryan? Any projects lined up?
We’re planning to tour the duo in Europe in April and May. Schedule is still a bit sparse, but hoping it fills in some.
Thanks so much for your time and for answering my questions. Thanks very much for your beautiful music.
Thanks for listening!
‘Road To Palios’ is out now on Bella Union.